History of buttons

Buttons are as old as clothing. In the Prehistory and old cultures over the complete world buttons have been made of stone, pottery, jade-stone, jet, bone, wood, shells, horn of deer or stag, ivory, bronze, silver and gold. They were used for purely practical reasons or as decoration, because even an ordinary button from bone was a decoration of the garment. Buttons of kings were more luxuriously, such as buttons of gold and glass, which were found in the tombs of Mykene and sea cultures around the Mediterranean. There are buttons from the 16th century BC. Women rapidly saw the importance of this practical object and the possibility to make use of this little jewel. Etruscan, Roman or Gaul, there is no difference, all women share the same vanity.

From the fifth century round fasteners are known, flat or decorated with geometrical figures. Jewels in gold, silver, mother-of-pearl and rock crystal, sometimes decorated with colourful stones. This great splendour and magnificence declined when the first millennium approached: the year 1000 was promised to be the fatal date and the end of the world. But when nothing spectacular happened, the court and lords promptly forgot all doom which had been predicted. They continued to live as before and used rich decorated clothing. Gold - and silversmiths manufactured buckles and hooks, pins and brooches in gold and silver. The locksmiths offered fastenings, large or small but in iron, tin and brass.

During the crusades (11th-13th century), the art of making buttons was imported in Europe from the Near East.
When it became common to wear clothes narrow fitted around the body, the role of buttons became more important. In the thirteenth century it was in to wear closely connecting sleeves from wrist to elbow, both for women and for men. There are drawings known which show a row of small buttons, placed near each other, used as decoration of the sleeve and body. There were also practical reasons to use buttons, because otherwise people had to sew together the sleeves each morning and to release them each evening. There were women who did this because they found buttons too lawless. False modesty, because it was a time when lateral slits in vests, upper dresses and farmer skirts, which show a glimpse of the skin, were popular. According to the church, the gates of hell were opened and buttons were censured for both sexes. Only laces could be used to fasten clothes.

Beginning the fourteenth century, there are women who accentuated their waist. It was a good time for button manufacturers: up to 38 buttons in front, 20 on each sleeve, one on a fold, around the neckline, as a jewel and so on.

Several artisans made buttons: jewellers, enamel workers, coppersmiths, toy makers, woodworkers. Also rosary makers made cheap buttons from simple materials such as bone and horn. In the thirteenth century Saint Louis (Louis IX) tried to divide the different materials among the different guilds:

  • horn, bone and ivory were reserved for rosary makers
  • button manufacturers received the rights to ordinary metals like copper and brass
  • goldsmiths got precious metals and glass

But this arrangement solved not all problems.
Simple buttons from wood or iron were covered with a layer of fabric which was braided graceful, a technique that is called “passementerie”. Also “damasquinage”, the act of fitting gold or silver wires in iron or steel was used.

During the Renaissance and the beginning of the sixteenth century buttons with stones decorated hats, shirts, sleeves and jackets of wealthy gentlemen and ladies. They were small buttons with silver or golden background, artistic finished, often filled with enamel and pearls, diamonds, rubies, garnet, emeralds or rock crystal.
The lower class wore buttons of bone, wood, tin, copper, bronze, leather, fabric and possible glass.

During the fifteenth century, in Europe there was a beginning of industrial development e.g. the art of printing. Markets were organized on the occasion of religious festivities. Button manufactures could sell there wares there on a larger scale.

In the sixteenth century, there was a revival of the enamel technique. This technique was already known by the ancient Greeks in the fourteenth century BC. Pulverized email (glass powder, coloured or not) is melted on a flat surface. Then a drawing can be made using thin wires (cloisonné) or by affixing metal oxides (this is rather painting on enamel).

In the seventeenth century, the buttons on jackets and coats (only for men) were usually small, numerous and equally decorative as functional. They were used for clothing the same way as nowadays. Women locked their garments with laces, ribbons and hooks.

Until the seventeenth century buttons were real jewels. The Scottish Queen Mary Stuart (1560 - 1568 ) had a lot of them. When she was beheaded in London in 1587, she wore buttons in git and pearl, designed as small acorns. Kathryn remarked that Mary, Queen of Scots was not executed in London. Queen Elizabeth did not want her rival anywhere near her center of power. Mary was executed at Fotheringay Castle, which was in Northamptonshire. She was also buried there. But in 1612, after her son, James, became King of England, he had her remains exhumed and had her interred in Westminster Abbey, ironically, very close to the tomb of Queen Elizbeth I.

For the collectors, these old buttons are rare to be found. What we still can find, are the Dutch silver buttons from the seventeenth century. These have been fixed by a agrafe (a swab through the eye), as they could be used for different garments.

From the last quarter of the eighteenth century, large buttons were popular. The big button rage lasted until about 1815. The following 35 years the button got a more functional and modest role although the quality was excellent. Wearing buttons was for men. It changed around 1850.
As the nineteenth century progressed and during the industrial revolution new materials were invented and mass production resulted in deteriorated quality..

In 1854, the Japanese ports opened to trade, and we know in the years to follow a wave of Japanese influences:

  • Satsumas: porcelain with a characteristic crackle glaze stippled with gold
  • Japanlak or Chinalak, a natural resin, had a big success
  • Imports of cinnabar
  • Silver, enamel, worked out with mother-of-pearl in Oriental motifs

This effect lasts until 1960.

After Louis XIV in France, no one had a greater impact on the button industry, as Queen Victoria of England. After the death of Prince Albert in 1861, she only wore jewellery and buttons in git as a sign of mourning. And this for 25 years. Those buttons and jewellery were widely copied in black glass, which is a lot cheaper for the common people. The glass was melted in steel moulds and pressed in many different motives. One can find the same models in metal and stained glass.

It is also the period of the buttons with pictures of operas, fables, plays, children (Kate Greenaway), birds, flowers … and all this in different sizes.

At the end of the nineteenth century the silverware had a rise in England. Large silver buttons with a large semi-precious stone worn a cape or cloak to be closed. These are called ‘gay nineties’.

For the buttons from the Art Nouveau (1890-1920) also silver is widely used , in addition one used horn, tortoise, enamel and glass. The Art Deco (1910-1940) used cheaper materials; glass, plastic and shiny metal.

1918 is the limit button collectors use to talk about old or modern buttons.

Of the modern buttons, we can mention that in 1920 the white shirt buttons came on the market in the form in which we still know them now.
Some momentary styles:

  • 1940: transparent glass,
  • 1920 to 1930: imitation of wood (Burwood and Syroco)
  • 1940 - 1950: Bakelite in colours,
  • After the second world war: coloured glass,
  • In the sixties: metal combined with plastics

For the ‘Haute Couture’ some buttons are designed on demand of the dressmakers and produced on a small scale. Some names: Jean Clément, Jean Schlumberger, François Hugo, Lucien Weingott, Line Vautrin, Hélène Méchin, Monique Ogier, André Molco, … .

Afterwards, one only wanted buttons that resist the washing machine and drying-machine, so plastic with two or four holes, as they are now generally found on our clothes.

© Griet Van Ranst - Text based on information found in: The big book of buttons, E.Hughes, M.Fink Boutons, T.Gandouet Buttons,N.Fink, M.Ditzler Boutons, L.Allio